The Honey Ladies: Saving Bay Area Bees One Swarm at a Time

MJ Paul Espinoza, CUESA Intern
June 16, 2017

When the Great Recession of 2008 hit, horse trainer and lifelong beekeeper Wendy Towner found herself at a crossroads: should she continue working in the quickly shrinking world of dressage horse training, or take a leap of faith and grow her family’s honey business?

She chose the latter and began to develop The Honey Ladies. Through their family’s homestead farm in Los Gatos, known as Morganic Hilltop Crops, Wendy, her sister, and her mother would harvest honey from bee boxes they kept throughout the Peninsula and sell it at the farmers market, along with their tree fruit, berries, and vegetables.

Their market stand acquired the nickname “The Honey Ladies,” and as their business grew, so did Wendy’s knowledge of bees.

Rescuing Live Hives

One day, one of the stand’s regular customers asked for some help with a swarm removal in a garage that was slated for demolition. The homeowners suspected one or two bee colonies had been nesting behind the wall for 10 to 15 years. As Wendy began her first swarm removal, she discovered not two, but six hives living in that garage.

At the end of the week-long removal process, the homeowners gave her an unexpected $300 check. Wendy had stumbled onto an emerging market and began offering live bee removal service across the Bay Area, Northern California, and eventually the entire West Coast.

While current technologies involve infrared heat sensing devices to track the location of hives in walls, trees, and other structures, Wendy prefers more traditional methods. She examines building blueprints and infrastructure to locate the hives, and uses her hands to feel the heat of the bees. Swarm temperatures vary between 89 and 95°F, and she and her staff of two (her husband and her father-in-law, both named Francisco) can quickly sense the location of the hive. After the hives are found, the entire removal process takes between two and three hours.

Long Live the Queen

Crucial to the survival of the colony is the protection and safety of the queen bee. Each hive contains tens of thousands of bees, including worker bees, drones, and one queen. Over her four- to five-year lifespan, the queen lays up to 2,000 eggs daily to maintain the population of the hive. If the queen is hurt or killed during a hive removal, the hive will been abandoned.

Bees typically swarm when a colony gets too large or too crowded. The queen bee leaves with a large group of worker bees to start a new hive, and the old hive raises a new queen. Swarms are often seen on trees, fences, or exposed spaces. They typically cluster somewhere near the original hive for a few hours to a few days while scout bees find a new permanent home for the colony.

After careful removal of a swarm from a wall, roof, or even bathtub, Wendy and her staff locate the queen. They place her in a “queen cage,” and the other bees follow by nature. Wendy then works to pull the remaining wax honeycombs out of the structure. She may use a shop vacuum on a low setting to gently gather any remaining straggler bees and keep the swarm together during transport to her boxes.

The final step is to reseal the area. Until this happens, scout bees from other hives will smell the honey in the air and come to check out the location that has been excavated.

From Swarm to Market

Wendy takes the rescued bees to join her 1,200 hives, scattered around the Bay Area. Placed near wildflowers, trees, and bushes, the hives can be rented for pollination services by farmers, gardeners, homeowners, or novice backyard beekeepers.

The bees collect pollen from poison oak blossoms, lavender, sage, blackberry, and many other plants, which lend distinct flavors to many varieties of raw, unfiltered honey offered by The Honey Ladies. Wendy also uses pieces of deconstructed rescued hives to make candles, soaps, and other beeswax products, which are also sold at The Honey Ladies’ Bay Area farmers market stands.

During late spring and summer, The Honey Ladies receive up to 70 calls a day for their bee removal services. Wendy also offers classroom education and mentoring services for beginning beekeepers. “Bees are so complicated and so simple at the same time, she says. “It’s great to share my knowledge with others.”

When asked about what drives her passion to save the bees, Wendy responds, “Without the bees we’re in trouble. My service gives a positive outcome for everyone: it’s good for the bees, it’s good for the flowers, it’s good for everyone.”

Celebrate National Pollinator Week (June 19-25)! Visit the Honey Ladies’ stand at Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays. And learn more about bees on The Berries & the Bees Farm Frolic on June 25, or by visiting the CUESA Food Shed on Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Photos courtesy of MJ Paul Espinoza and Wendy Towner.